Scanning the crowd, I spotted the last person I imagined picking up at LAX: 5 feet 1. Black hair. Frowning.
Jie was only the second of my cousins to visit the United States. I'd seen her five times before, but always surrounded by other family when I traveled to China.
Three years ago, we stumbled through our first full conversation. Now, pulling up to the curb, with Tupac blasting in my car, I gave her my most enthusiastic smile. Try to make this fun, I thought.
Without a word, she hopped into the back seat. Driving a visitor around L.A. was one thing, being her actual chauffeur was crossing the line.
Then I remembered that in China she never drove and wasn't used to sitting up front.
Moving my purse back to the passenger seat, I turned off the music in silent mutiny. It was going to be a long five weeks.
Back in my apartment, we were three feet apart but mentally in separate worlds. There was no family around to help explain the culture gaps. Like most of her generation in China, she was an only child used to living at home until marriage. On my own in L.A., I had some explaining to do.
"No chopsticks?" she asked immediately, rummaging through my barely used kitchen. "Do you even have a rice cooker?"
She sounded exactly like my mother when she visited. "What exactly," she said, peering into the oven, "do you cook with?"
Her visit surprised me — she wanted to spend summer break anywhere but her graduate school in Somewhere, Michigan. On paper, it seemed like a great deal: Cousin closest in age. Go-to beach destination. Hollywood. But her intelligence and seriousness were intimidating, and she had no interest in the glitz that L.A. promised foreign tourists.
So, hoping to impress her, we began with a food tour. My kitchen, after all, was pointless.
"You know, these stick — steak? — burritos taste like rou jia mo," she said, examining a piece she had cut expertly with fork and knife.
Begrudgingly, I agreed. She was right. Burritos do resemble the steak wraps famous in her hometown. And the textures of our Peruvian dinner weren't that unique from Southeast Asian cuisine. Even Ethiopian collard greens used spices that resembled southern China's.
"But I like this," she said. "Food is only as good as the people you share it with."
Our time spent in this sprawling city connected us in a way that my multiple trips to China never did. Together, we examined the details that I once blindly drove past. What I took for smog, she breathed in as fresh air — sitting outside savoring an "exotic" brunch of eggs and avocado, she couldn't stop smiling at the three Chihuahuas yapping under the next table.
Dragged to see my friend's band on Sunset Boulevard, she stood right in front of the guitarist, head swaying to the scratchy drum lines. She saw an underground culture that only existed in movies. I hovered by the door, taking in the dive bar speckled with a handful of metalheads.
On primary election day, she followed me through the polls. "We vote more than once in an election year," I explained. Pointing to the color-coded tables and maps on the wall, I stumbled through an explanation of why my apartment complex was split into four precincts.
"Are we early? Why aren't more people here voting?" she whispered, staring at the only voter in the room. He came only to vote on the proposed cigarette tax, he told us as he rushed out.
For the first time, I carefully went through every page of the ballot.
In our many hours stuck on the 10 Freeway, we practiced "Englishnese" — a compromise of her English in response to my Chinese. Calling our grandparents by speakerphone, we could hear our nai nai choke with laughter as we recounted my cousin's first day alone in L.A.
"Are you sure, sure, sure you'll be OK?" I had asked on my way to work.
Don't worry, she said. "I'll just take public transportation and walk around."
Nine hours later, I found her by a Wilshire Boulevard bench, still waiting for the bus and too tired to walk. Was this anywhere close to the Getty, she asked me, examining the map in her hand.
A month sailed by and suddenly I was sending her off. What's "a shorty?" she asked, turning up the Busta Rhymes song to hear it again.
As she jumped out of shotgun, we ran into each other for a hug. I was saying goodbye to my sister and counting the days until we could meet again.